It’s just after midnight and I’m sitting in a hospital room in the pediatric unit next to my ten-year-old son. He’s asleep now, after a hard day of watching TV and playing games on the iPad and telling me to stop looking at him, geez.
He’s been here for two days, being fed antibiotics through an IV. He got bit by a bug, and staph got in, and it was MRSA, and the oral antibiotics he was on didn’t do a damned thing. We went back to his pediatrician and she took one look at the abscess that was still growing after thirty-six hours of standard medicine and her eyes got big and, bang, we were in the hospital.
This is how medicine is supposed to work. Everybody has been kind and patient and our stay has been nothing but reassuring and comfortable. Alerts were raised when they should have been, and professionals acted accordingly. Score one for the American medical establishment.
The bill is $23,800.
I’ll have to have to pay less than 6% of that, because I’m lucky enough to still have insurance.
Two years ago, the company I worked for up and skedaddled — that’s how you say it, right? — to Texas, for a “better business environment” than you can apparently find in California. I think that means that the CEO doesn’t have to pay state taxes and is allowed to hunt low-level employees for sport. I’ve been working as an independent contractor since — and having a good time doing it — but I haven’t been able to find private insurance. Everybody loves the small businessman, the fabled self-sufficient entrepreneur, unless he’s got a history of kidney stones and a ruptured disc and, delicately put, a “problematic height/weight ratio.” They didn’t say which way it was problematic, but I think it’s insurance industry jargon for “Tubby McLardass.”
But California — in an effort, no doubt, to discourage business — lets former employes extend their COBRA coverage for an additional 18 months after the federal limit runs out. I’m paying the full premium, but I and my family have insurance. We’ve got a strategy for dealing with the COBRA expiration, but it’s complicated and requires a lot of hoop jumping and is more than a little silly. If that falls through, we’ll insure my wife and kids and I’ll have to wait for the ban on exclusions because of preexisting conditions to kick in, in 2014.
And that number keeps swirling around my head: $23,800. For a bug bite.
Everybody did everything right. There’s nobody to blame here except maybe the damned bug. And that single random act — save for some lucky timing and California’s silly determination to look after its citizens — would have blown a hole in the side of our savings that would have taken years to fix. OK, kids, which of you wants to skip college?
I don’t normally like to talk politics. Not real politics. I’ll smart-ass on Twitter, but I get uncomfortable as soon as I feel the need to be earnest. I don’t trust myself when I actually care. But the Republican convention just finished up, and tens of thousands of people gathered in Tampa to cheer every mention of reversing the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. The PPACA is how literally tens of millions of Americans can avoid having a bug bite wipe them out financially. It’s how I and my kidney stones and my bad back and my big ol’ gut may end up protecting ourselves, and our small business to boot. Yes, it’s expensive. Yes, it’s complicated. Yes, it’s ugly. Welcome to running a country.
The PPACA is important. It’s vital. When a bug can bring down your family, when there are people who are willing to take away the shield that could prevent that, when we as a country have become so small and stingy and mean that we cheer the idea of ripping medical care away from fellow citizens, offering nothing in its place but sanctimony and self-righteousness… What are we? We’re not a country. We’re not a community. Oh, no.
We’re a zero-sum game. We’re the state of nature. We’re animals, gobbling down as much as we can, as fast as we can, swatting away the weak.
“I got mine” are just about the ugliest words in the English language. They’re also, increasingly, a mantra for the same people who shout “We, the people” out of the other side of their mouths.
I love this country, more than I can properly express in words. It’s my home. It’s my future. Its history and achievements are awe-inspiring. Its idea, its founding purpose, is the most important the world has ever known. We are bound together by the notion that we are all created equal, committed to one another as a single body politic, held by the strength of our lives and our fortunes and our sacred honor. We put a man on the moon and an SUV on Mars and we made sure that tens of millions of our fellow citizens can know that a goddamned insect — or an accident or a disease or any of a billion other random, faultless happenstances — isn’t going to send them to the poor house.
(Assuming social services still supports poor houses. Substitute “the streets” as appropriate, assuming infrastructure funding hasn’t gone to corporate tax breaks.)
We can make this work. We have to make this work. A bug bite cannot be the thing that draws the line between a middle-class life and poverty, between opportunity and the stagnant dead-end of could-have-been. Our friends, our neighbors, our children, the future of this country as a cohesive society — as an endeavor where we see each other as more than opponents, as more than competitors — depends on it.
Otherwise, we’re just waiting for the fever, and the rot, and for the bugs to pick the bones clean.