Hit over the head by harsh re­al­ity of health care

Austin American-Statesman - - OPINION -

There isn’t much about na­tional health care re­form that hasn’t been writ­ten, de­bated, lauded or cursed since March. I don’t claim a unique per­spec­tive, al­though it’s fresh and very real to me.

For the past 14 years, I’ve been em­ployed full-time by GSD&M in Austin. One of the ben­e­fits I en­joyed dur­ing my ten­ure is health in­surance cov­er­age. I didn’t re­al­ize un­til lately how blessed I’ve been.

I’m sin­gle with no chil­dren, pay­ing lit­tle to no premi­ums for cov­er­age. Den­tal, med­i­cal and even acupunc­ture is cov­ered. I’ve taken health care for granted, like an in­alien­able right I was guar­an­teed to re­ceive. So in­grained was this be­lief that even the slight­est bit of red tape would take me from calm to in­censed in noth­ing flat.

Cov­er­age, com­pany, pol­icy changes filled me with ire. Why should I have to work hard to en­sure I was taken care of ? Shouldn’t the “right to easy health care” be in­cluded along the right to bear arms? I would get livid when my out-of-pocket was $100 for an ER visit. And hell hath no fury like a woman wait­ing in line at a chain phar­macy.

For years, I was a loyal pa­tron of the lo­cally owned La­mar Plaza Drug Store — my Cheers Bar for phar­macy needs. Ev­ery­one there knew my name, and I knew theirs. When I called, I got a real, live per­son, some­one I also got to ask im­por­tant ques­tions of face to face.

To their credit, the chain drug stores al­ways ask if you want to talk to the phar­ma­cist. Un­for­tu­nately, I think most peo­ple de­cline. I do — af­ter wait­ing in line for what seems like eter­nity and feel­ing the eyes of those in limbo be­hind me burn­ing into my back, the last thing I want is to stay there an­other nanosec­ond.

At La­mar Plaza, the phar­ma­cist would ac­tu­ally check me out — both by tak­ing my pay­ment but also ask­ing key ques­tions about my in­di­vid­ual health and well­ness — a lux­ury I know isn’t af­forded in the chains.

And, alas, a place like La­mar Plaza doesn’t have the lux­ury of be­ing open 24 hours to suit emer­gency med­i­cal needs. That ac­cess be­came most im­por­tant for me when I was con­stantly plagued with de­bil­i­tat­ing mi­graines. No, not headaches, gut-ex­pelling, fire-blaz­ing pain. The kind that leads one to check into an emer­gency room. The kind that ul­ti­mately led to a leave of ab­sence and a week­long hos­pi­tal stay at a headache clinic in Hous­ton. Dur­ing that time, I needed con­sis­tent ac­cess to meds and there­fore be­came a full-time pa­tron of chain phar­ma­cies.

I have a love/loathing re­la­tion­ship with that phar­macy. I love the cos­metic isles, Red Box movies, Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream se­lec­tion, and in all but a few cases, the staff. Lines are long and painful. The vol­ume of cus­tomers is so high that, de­spite the staff’s best ef­forts, it’s dif­fi­cult to serve all of us in the man­ner we need. And dur­ing this time, I started to fully com­pre­hend the term “health care cri­sis.”

I stayed in the hos­pi­tal for five days, for a to­tal of $45,000 — fairly cheap by cur­rent stan­dards. My por­tion? $450.

It hit me then how im­por­tant health in­surance was and how grate­ful I was to have it. With­out it, treat­ment would have been im­pos­si­ble. And with­out treat­ment, the life I’m en­joy­ing now, im­plau­si­ble.

The most re­cent cen­sus shows that 17 per­cent of the U.S. is unin­sured, with Texas lead­ing the nation at a whop­ping 26.5 per­cent. As I re­cently left full-time em­ploy­ment to pur­sue other in­ter­ests, these statis­tics land even closer to home. Thoug I’m still do­ing project work for GSD&M, I am now re­spon­si­ble for CO­BRA pay­ments — more on a monthly ba­sis than I paid for my en­tire hos­pi­tal stint.

Last night, I was in line at Wal­greens (af­ter a per­sonal call from the phar­ma­cist to help me al­le­vi­ate an is­sue I was hav­ing — thank you, Craig) when a car pulled up next to me. It was a woman and her el­derly mother pick­ing up a pre­scrip­tion. The to­tal was $101. The re­sponse was a heart­break­ing “Never mind, then,” and they drove away.

No one should have to live this way — choos­ing food over feel­ing bet­ter. I no longer be­lieve that easy health care is or even should be my right — but af­ford­able health care should be avail­able to us all.

And while the phar­macy line at Wal­greens still might not be my all-time-fa­vorite place to be, I’m re­minded of the ur­ban adage: “Don’t hate the player, hate the game.” For my part, I’m glad the game is chang­ing.

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