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I Learned Firsthand How Insane the American Healthcare System Is
The way we pay for healthcare in this country is thoroughly absurd.
Two weeks ago, I left America for the first time. After living almost my entire life in sunny Los Angeles and palm-tree-laden Orlando, I wanted to see something different. I see my friends take vacations all the time. They go to Mexico or Panama.
While Cancun and Panama are beautiful destinations, they resemble home a little too much. Why would I trade palm trees and sunny beaches for more palm trees and sunny beaches?
I rest my case.
On the cusp of winter, I decided to take a trip to Iceland.
The days would be short, just a few hours, and the nights would be long and cold. Just what I wanted.
Please take me to the coldest, darkest, glacier-and-geyser-filled island the world offers. Let me experience the opposite of my entire life.
My girlfriend and I booked our tickets. It’s the busy season for me back home, so she went on to a few other countries after we enjoyed our three days in the tiny nation to the north.
We did the tourist thing: we booked a northern lights tour (canceled thanks to the rain), and we booked a tour of the southern part of the island, including the geysers, volcanic hot springs, and an icy, stone national park that separates the two tectonic plates of Asia and America.
Shortly before the trip, I suffered a back injury. The injury was excruciating, leaving me in bed for many days, but I wasn’t going to cancel and skip out on Iceland, ditching my girlfriend. I toughed it out.
I winced through the pain, hopped up on íbúfen 400 filmuhúdadar töflur, which is just a fancy Icelandic way of saying Ibuprofen 400 mg film-coated tablets.
Thankfully, I also brought prescription-strength American meds to get me through the long days of walking and sightseeing, but I knew it was severe.
I could not straighten my spine without pain. Laying down was nearly impossible, as was sitting up in a chair. I would sleep for 20 minutes and then wake up in agonizing pain. I couldn’t help but vocalize.
Sitting on a plane and in airports for nearly 24 hours on the trip back didn’t help. It was a miserable experience, but the sights, the smells, the sounds, and the atmosphere were all worth the gruel.
While in Iceland, we visited a badass Punk Rock Museum in Reykjavík, Iceland's capital city.
We hit it off with the store’s owner right away. We talked about all sorts of things, from Trump to capitalism. He wants to smash the system, and it shows. He told us capitalism is alive and well in Iceland — it’s just not been twisted, distorted, mangled, and perverted to the degree American capitalism is.
Icelandic capitalism is about supporting yourself and being responsible to your community.
American capitalism is about taking everything you can for yourself at the expense of your community.
He was the only Icelander I felt comfortable asking, “Hey man, I’m in extreme pain. Suppose I wanted to get help. How do I see a doctor or get stronger meds besides the apothecary?”
“Oh man, that’s easy. Just go down to the hospital. They’ll take great care of you.”
“Really?” I replied.
“Even an American like me? What will it cost me? Will I have to pay anything?”
“Of course not,” he balked. “I mean, maybe at most, you might pay a few dollars, but healthcare is free in Iceland, and it’s good. Now you might have to wait a few hours. If your injury isn't life-threatening, it might take a few hours to be seen, but you can be treated.”
I was torn. I had a decision to make.
To go to this hospital and be seen by a doctor who might be able to help me get out of this inhuman, intolerable pain or to tough it out until I got back to the United States, where it would be much more expensive. Considering we only had three days in the country, including airport travel and our commute to and from the airport, I decided to hold off until my return to the U.S.
You might think you know where this story is going — but I assure you, you do not.
I returned to the United States and slept or stayed in bed for days. Checking my phone and writing on the computer was just too painful to bear. Eventually, things got slightly better, and I could get up and get to a computer long enough to find a doctor. I called a local center that specializes in orthopedic injuries. To my surprise, they were incredibly affordable.
I’ve never had health insurance. I will most likely never have health insurance in my life.
If you’re wondering why, I point to exhibits A and B — my girlfriend and her husband (we’re polyamorous, for those scratching their heads). They pay ungodly amounts (hundreds or thousands of dollars) monthly for high-quality insurance. He recently had hernia surgery. They didn’t cover it.
He had to pay for the entire thing out of pocket.
She has plenty of those experiences as well. Over the years, she’s seen her family doctor for various issues. Almost always, it isn’t covered, and she has to pay or pay for half the cost.
Tests she’s been instructed to take?
On the other hand, I pay for all of my medical bills out of pocket, saving me the overhead of paying the monthly insurance premium. Why spend over $832 per month, the minimum I could pay at the Healthcare Exchange, for health insurance that won’t cover me when I get hurt or sick?
Another friend of mine is married to a nurse. They have a daughter and live in the same area as me. Thanks to the fact that his wife is a nurse who’s worked for a hospital for over 20 years, they have the absolute best insurance money can buy.
His daughter recently started having dizzy spells and needed an MRI, then another MRI after the first one didn’t clarify what the doctors needed. He had to pay $500 and $750 out of pocket for the MRIs — that’s with health insurance.
Now, here’s where the story gets really interesting…
I walk into the orthopedic office to see the doctor. I scheduled an appointment, but it still took me an hour to be seen. I can only imagine walk-in times are similar to the hospital back in Iceland. They only charged me $270. It was a flat rate, so no surprises, nothing like that.
For those of you reading outside the country, surprise billing is common in American healthcare, and most healthcare establishments don’t let you see the price of treatment until after the treatment. The COVID test you take could cost you $10 or $54,000 (literally), and you won’t know which it is until they send you a bill in the mail.
How absurd is that?
The flat rate for my back treatment included X-rays with an X-ray tech, a visit with a doctor, injections of some pretty hardcore steroids that helped calm the muscles and ease the pain, and a prescription to pick up at the pharmacy. It was $270.
The prescription cost me $18, so thus far, I’ve spent $288.
The doctor was concerned about weakness in my left arm stemming from back pain. He suggested I get an MRI and referred me to two places to get it. These two places will charge me around $200-$250 to get an MRI of my back.
How does that make any sense? I’m a cash-paying patient. I don’t have insurance. Shouldn’t my cost be equal to or more than people who have insurance and pay monthly premiums of hundreds or thousands of dollars every month?
You’d think it would. In a sensible world, someone paying hundreds or thousands of dollars per month for top-notch insurance wouldn’t have to pay 2x-3x more for the same healthcare service as someone who wasn’t paying insurance companies that same monthly premium to take care of him when he gets hurt or sick.
But we don’t live in a sensible world, and America isn’t a sensible place.
When I stop to think about what’s wrong with this picture, I’m tempted to answer with one word…
Everything from the surprise billing to the cost compared to Iceland. The whole shebang from the fact that we have to pay hundreds or thousands of dollars per month *just in case* we get hurt or sick, not to mention how regularly those companies — that rake in billions of dollars per year — refuse to pay for our treatment when we get hurt or sick.
If that’s not an insane healthcare system, I don’t know what is.
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