Medical costs put families on edge

Congress is scheduled to vote this week on overriding President Bush’s veto of legislation that would expand health insurance for children of low-income families. The outcome remains up in the air.

Bush called the bill “an incremental step toward [lawmakers’] goal of government-run healthcare for every American,” which he said would be “the wrong direction for our country.”

In fact, the legislation to expand the State Children’s Health Insurance Program had nothing to do with “government-run healthcare.” If anything, it represented an incremental step toward government-run insurance for every American.

And with 47 million people now uninsured, I’m having a hard time seeing how this would be such a bad thing.


Healthcare has been much on my mind in recent days as I take my first steps down the lifelong path of dealing with a chronic disease. As I wrote last Sunday, I’ve been diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes and now rely on five insulin injections daily.

While deeply grateful for all the resources available to me as I learn to manage my condition, I also can’t help but fear the possibility of my family being wiped out financially should I ever lose my employer-based insurance.

It’s a fear I encountered again and again as I communicated by phone and e-mail with the hundreds of people nationwide who contacted me over the last week with their own stories of medical hardship and insurance woes.

The calls and e-mails were passionate, well informed and, all too frequently, heartbreaking.


Downey resident Julie Dugan said she could appreciate my anxiety about losing insurance coverage. She lost hers when she was fired in December from her job as an administrative assistant.

Dugan, 54, suffers from chronic kidney stones and requires costly medical treatment if a stone is too large to naturally pass through her system.

“It’s scary,” Dugan said. “The last time I had surgery, I had to take money out of my house to pay for it. Now, I’m afraid of losing my house.”

There are a lot of reasons that people can become homeless. Kidney stones shouldn’t be one of them.

Chicago resident Suzanne Elder told me about her 8-year-old daughter, who was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes last year.

The child’s second-grade teachers refused to assist in the multiple blood-sugar tests and insulin injections that define a diabetic’s daily routine. So Elder, 47, said she had to quit her job as a marketing consultant and attend school every day, just to make sure her daughter would still be alive when the afternoon bell rang.

Now, thankfully, Elder’s child can administer her own tests and shots. This leaves Elder free to worry about how she and her husband will cover the roughly $15,000 in annual medical costs that are piling up under their daughter’s high-deductible insurance policy.

“The costs of this disease from every dimension -- financial, emotional, social -- are devastating,” Elder said.


Chatsworth resident Chelan Maierhoffer told me about her first visit to the pharmacy after her 7-year-old daughter was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes in August. Maierhoffer’s insurance covered 60% of hospital costs but barely touched the additional expenses -- the insulin, the test strips, the lancets, the needles.

Maierhoffer, 40, a single parent, recalled being handed a bill for $523 -- a cost she could barely cover but upon which her child’s life depended. It was her first look at the financial burden she and her daughter will face for decades to come.

“I just broke down and started crying,” Maierhoffer said.

Many people who responded to last Sunday’s column agreed with my observation that runaway costs have made the employer-based insurance system obsolete, and that our best hope for universal coverage lies in a single-payer insurance system similar to what’s offered in every other industrialized democracy.

Some, however, disputed this notion.

“Your lousy DNA is not my responsibility,” declared Gary G. “Thousands have your medical challenge of diabetes and I will not pay a cent of my taxes to cover them in a national program.”

Robert D. was equally adamant. “If you want coverage under socialized medicine,” he said by e-mail, “move your sorry butt to Canada, England, France or Cuba.”

Let’s be clear: Single-payer isn’t socialized medicine. Doctors and nurses would continue to operate just as they do now, whether in hospitals or private practices. Single-payer is a national insurance system that replaces premiums, deductibles and co-payments with modest levies.


For most people, those levies would actually be cheaper on an annual basis than current costs.

Single-payer also would create enormous savings by standardizing clerical procedures. As it stands, researchers at Harvard University estimate, about a third of the $2 trillion spent annually on healthcare in the United States is devoted to bureaucratic overhead.

As for Bush’s dire warnings about government-run healthcare, that’s a fine how-do-you-do for a man who in July underwent a colonoscopy largely at the government’s expense.

The procedure was performed at the taxpayer-funded medical facility at Camp David by a team of doctors from the taxpayer-funded National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.

Government-run healthcare for the president is so thorough, according to a report by a former White House physician, George Fuller, “that the president cannot even ride an elevator in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building without a physician escort.”

Forget the escort service. I’d be satisfied just knowing that I’ll always have health coverage, no matter what happens.

As an American, though, that’s a right I don’t enjoy.


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