Socialized Medicine

My husband came home with a sports injury last night -– a torn muscle in his leg. It turns out Badminton is a lot more dangerous than it looks. He hobbled upstairs to the TV chair and from there to bed. This morning I woke up to the sound of him phoning the hospital to ask about borrowing some crutches. They insisted on seeing him first so I would have to drive him there. What a way to start the day -– finding out that you will have to face the horrors of socialized medicine before you have even had your first cup of coffee . . .

We got to the hospital and, naturally, we first had to navigate all the administrative “paperwork: – this consisted of my husband whipping out his insurance card, which the nurse scanned and handed back. She told us to take a seat where our endless waiting period would begin. We passed the time chatting with other patients and several staff members, because it turned out that almost everyone in the area was an old acquaintance, a student or a former student of my husband’’s. FINALLY after what must have been at least 5 minutes, we were called into Treatment Room Four where only one doctor and two nurses were on duty. Being so understaffed, it took them almost 5 more minutes to examine his injury, advise him on how he should deal with it (cold compresses, keeping off it, etc.), give him a shot against thrombosis, fit him with crutches and write down the names of three prescription medications. Of course they couldn’’t just give us the drugs, no, we had to drive all the way to the pharmacy two blocks away to get those. There we had another hassle because we didn’’t have a prescription from our general practitioner. We had to pay up front for the medicine and hold on to the receipt for reimbursement later, when we came back with it. Minus the $5 prescription fee, of course. You would think they could find a more humane solution! Anyway, by the time we finally got back home, my second cup of coffee which I had left on the kitchen table was almost cold. What a nightmare!

The experience brought back memories of another emergency room experience about 8 years ago when we were in the States on vacation. My husband had broken his collarbone in a biking accident and a passerby had called for an ambulance. I went to meet him at the emergency room and found him lying on a hospital bed waiting for a doctor. They had given him some pain medication that wasn’t working and an x-ray. A while later a woman who called herself a “physician’’s assistant” came in. Her job seemed to consist of bringing the x-ray to the doctor and then relaying his or her instructions back to the patient. Those instructions were to make an appointment with specialist Dr. So-and-So later in the day. In other words “”Go somewhere else.”” They gave him a cheesy little cloth sling and sent us on our way. Later in the afternoon, Dr. So-and-So said not much could be done and charged us $70.

We flew back home shortly thereafter and my husband went straight to a doctor here who recommended surgery to repair the splintered bone and stabilize it with a piece of metal (to be removed later in a second surgery). Total cost: $0. In the meantime, the bills had started arriving from the States for the emergency room visit.

Three block ambulance ride: $700.
Hospital fee: $600.
Staff Doctor’s’ fee: $350 – despite the fact that no doctor ever looked at him.
X-ray fee: $40

What’s next? I wondered. Are they going to send us a bill for the cheap little sling? The plastic bag they put his ripped shirt and watch into? The wheelchair ride to the front entrance? I also wondered how they calculated these charges – I suspected someone just made them up. We submitted the bills to our health insurer and they agreed to cover them up to the amount these services would cost here. We ended up getting about half our money back.

A year after this experience, Obama was elected and started in on health care reform. I remember all the comments of his critics on the horrors of socialist medicine. The assigned doctors. The six month waiting periods for emergency surgery. The day-long stints in overcrowded waiting rooms. The 10 patients to a hospital room and more in the hallways. The death panels. The lobotomies, the bloodletting, the leeches. They obviously convinced a lot of people with these scare tactics, too. Americans often asked me questions to the effect of “”So, just how bad is it?”” I could see looks of puzzlement in their faces when I answered. Many of them remained unconvinced, passing off my experiences as an aberration. One man, however, asked a lot of detailed questions and really listened. What surprised him most was that I had no idea how much this or that prescription drug cost, because I had never had to pay for one. Just the flat $5 fee. At the end of our conversation he said, ““17% off the top of every paycheck covers all your health care and your retirement pension? I would take that deal!””

He was the exception though. Most people seemed content to stick to their preconceptions, not missing what they couldn’’t imagine.

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