Friday, July 15, 2011

The Perilous Life of the Unemployed, Part I: Health Care

When I lost my job last August, one of the first and most difficult challenges that I and my family faced was living without health insurance. The United States is virtually alone among the "industrialized" countries of the world in taking the bizarre position that adequate health care a privilege rather than a right.

Since I have type II diabetes and depression, and my wife and son also have health issues, one of the first places I went after I got laid off was the social services office to apply for Medicaid. No luck! It turns out that since my son was 18 years old, we no longer qualified for this program. I was given a paper that listed low-cost, sliding-scale clinics where we might see a doctor and receive discounted prescriptions. For every one of the numbers that I called, I got the same response: We are booked solid, we are not accepting new patients, you can try back in case something opens up, but don't hold your breath.

The problem, I realized, was that just as the US economy had gone in the toilet and the unemployment rate had risen to over ten percent, the funding from the government for health care programs for the unemployed and underemployed had plummeted. This is just another of the many catch-22s of American government: just when services are most needed, they become least available.

In late December I became so ill that Karen insisted on taking me to the emergency. It turned out that I was suffering from diabetic ketoacidosis--because I had not been able to afford my insulin and other medications, my blood glucose level was so high that my urine had filled with ketones. If Karen had not talked me into going to the hospital, I could have fallen into a coma and died within hours.

It was only after this trip to Carolinas Medical Center that one of the hospital's social workers was able to make some phone calls, pull some strings, and get my family into a sliding scale program for office visits and prescriptions. I will always be grateful to the staff of this outstanding hospital for accomplishing this. However, the fact that it took over four months and a potentially deadly medical crisis to be able to get assistance, and it is disturbing to me to think how many people in situations similar to ours still are without any resources at all for their health care needs.

What is most galling of all is that in a country with the incredible resources and wealth of the United States, the prevailing view is that health care is a commodity to be bought and sold on the market, instead of a basic right that is available to all persons.


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