As a child, I never thought twice about going to the doctor. My parents never talked about it, but I assume their jobs provided them insurance. If there were co-pays or premiums, my parents never talked about that either. For all I knew, going to the doctor was free.
The only time I was made aware of the hassle of insurance was when I was 14 and accidentally shoved a wad of tissue deep into my ear. We had just finished a road trip from Wisconsin to Seattle that required my whole family to share a hotel room each night. My whole family included my dad, whose snoring could drown out a broken vibrator. The wadded up toilet paper was my improvised ear plugs.
When my mom took me to the hospital in the morning, I remember mounds of paperwork, photocopies of insurance cards, the exchange of money, and several phone calls to our insurance provider. The doctor finally ushered us into his office, stuck a giant pair of tweezers in my ear, and pulled out the toilet paper within 30 seconds. All those phone calls and paperwork for that?
Little did I know how much money, paperwork, and headache I would have to deal with a decade after that incident. Thoughts of health insurance, premiums, co-pays, in-network doctors, and Medicaid eligibility have consumed too much of my time over the past 10 years.
I took health insurance for granted until 2007, when, between jobs, I decided to teach in Korea. My COBRA from my previous job had run out, and I was faced with a $200+ monthly payment* for the medication I’d been on for six years. Being extremely frugal, I halved my dosage and started rationing what was left. It was an anti-depressant and, I reasoned, not a necessity. Also, I would have needed the prescription renewed soon and didn’t want to pay out-of-pocket to visit a psychiatrist.
When I moved to Seoul, I found a nice English speaking doctor to continue prescribing my pills to me. Korea–at least when I was there–had a single-payer system. Simply being in the country meant you could buy into their inexpensive–and comprehensive–government-sponsored insurance.
I was able to go to the doctor whenever I needed and continue getting my medication for the rest of that year. Then my teaching contract ran out, and I flew back to the States for three months. I was nervous about going uninsured, so I went online and found an Anthem Blue Cross plan for a low monthly premium. I’d never had Insurance 101 and didn’t really understand what “deductible” meant. This would come back to bite me in the ass.
Over the next three months, I went to two doctors’ appointments. I believe the first was a yearly gyno appointment, and the second I have little recollection of. I went to a clinic that catered to low-income patients, which I reasoned I was at that moment, being jobless. I didn’t understand that “low-income” was a euphemism for being on state or federal benefits. A few weeks later, I received two sizable bills in the mail. Shocked and outraged, I showed them to my mom, and she explained to me what “deductible” meant. As you may have guessed, the reason my premiums were so inexpensive was because my deductible was sky high.
I can’t tell you how elated I was to go back to Korea and not have to worry about health insurance for another year.
That second year in Korea, I weaned myself off my medication again. In the back of my mind was the knowledge that I wouldn’t be in Korea forever–and how much easier my life would be if I had less reason to visit doctors and pharmacies once back in the U.S.
Another year and change passed, and I was back in the States, again sans insurance. This was 2009–deep in a recession–and I naively thought I’d find another full-time job that would provide me with coverage. That didn’t happen. I would fervently Google homeopathic remedies when I was sick or in pain. I didn’t go to a doctor for over a year. Then I moved to Israel for work and school.
Israel didn’t have state-run insurance like Korea, but they did regulate prices on pharmaceuticals, insurance, and other medical costs. Within a month, the damp air in Tel Aviv gave me the first case of bronchitis I’ve ever had, leaving me literally speechless. I still hadn’t bothered to buy an insurance plan, but was able to afford the full cost of an in-home doctor’s visit (yes, the doctor made a house call) and the necessary medication. After that, I got insurance and went to the doctor whenever I deemed necessary.
After a year, I was back in the States. It’s a long story as to why, but I was eligible–for the next year and a half–for military insurance coverage. It wasn’t great insurance, but it took away that nagging voice in the back of my head warning me that one trip to the ER would leave me in life-long debt. Then that plan was canceled, and it was back to Googling which super-foods have the most Vitamin C and how to cure migraines.
I remember spending one night with searing pain in my abdomen that I assumed was a bladder infection. Google told me that apple cider vinegar provided more relief than cranberry juice for UTI’s. I swallowed so much of the stuff that it gave me heartburn. Amazingly, when I stumbled into a Planned Parenthood the next day, prepared to pay full-price for antibiotics, the doctor told me I didn’t have a bladder infection. I’m still not sure if I cured myself through sheer will and vinegar, or if the abdominal pain was something else. Either way, I still had to pay the $200* for the UTI test. At least it went to a good clinic.
Then came the Affordable Care Act.
(To be continued)
*These are approximations of how much I paid. I can’t remember exact amounts and don’t have digital copies of the receipts.